Coconut Oil Can Help Heal Sunburned Skin—If You Time It Right

Photo: Getty Images/Eleganza
You may have used coconut oil to improve your complexion or make your hair grow faster. The kitchen staple is a well-loved beauty product; even actresses Shay Mitchell and Priyanka Chopra appreciate its natural benefits.

But did you know coconut oil is also something you may want to grab after hitting the pool or beach this summer? Yep, it can help heal your skin after a sunburn. According to Geeta Yadav, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology, coconut oil is similar to Vaseline in that it moisturizes the skin and can reduce future scarring that a burn might cause.

Experts In This Article

Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, a New York-based dermatologist, adds that coconut oil has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, and it can help with exfoliation. The anti-inflammatory part aids skin regeneration, while the antimicrobial part kills or slows the spread of harmful microorganisms. So, in short, lathering up can help your skin heal and “go back to normal,” so to speak, post-burn. And it might help keep you safe from infections if you’re peeling.

However, you have to be careful. Since oil traps heat, it can actually make a sunburn (or blisters from sun exposure) worse if you apply it too quickly. “Greasy emollients, including coconut oil, can occlude pores, which in turn traps in heat, making the skin uncomfortable,” Dr. Mudgil explains.

Dr. Yadav shares a helpful analogy to further illustrate this: “Think about how quickly oil heats in a pan on a low temperature, versus how long it takes for the same amount of water to boil,” she says.

How and when to treat your sunburn until that point

Shoot for something cooler first when treating your sunburn. Dr. Yadav says applying a compress (like a washcloth) dunked in cold milk or aloe vera gel is your best bet when that skin first starts to redden. “These will reduce the inflammation and heat in your sunburn until you can treat it with other options,” she says.

Lathering up with lotions or gels with calamine, or hydrocortisone lotion to calm inflammation, are also great initial treatments, according to Dr. Mudgil.

The length of time you’ll want to use a cooling agent alone ranges from hours to days, Dr. Yadav adds, depending on the burn. “If your skin is noticeably hot to the touch, it is too hot for you to apply coconut oil to it,” she warns. Generally speaking, 24 to 48 hours is typical timing for that cooldown to happen, says Dr. Mudgil.

Which is better for sunburn: Coconut oil or aloe vera?

Since aloe vera and coconut oil have different purposes, Dr. Yadav encourages using coconut oil on top of aloe vera once the skin has cooled to seal in lasting moisture, but otherwise, to use aloe vera throughout the healing process. She points to a study in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand that found aloe heals skin faster than petroleum jelly (like Vaseline).

Dr. Mudgil agrees to go in that order. “Aloe vera allows the skin to breathe and is best used initially on a sunburn; coconut oil is better used in the later phase of sunburn recovery, when the skin is peeling,” he says.

Put simply, keep applying that aloe until it has completely healed your burn, and consider adding on some coconut oil to finish the job once it’s cool.

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